Some thoughts on Meir Wieseltier’s ‘The Journey of the Great Egyptian Obelisk to the West’, from PIW editor Rami Saari: “Poetry is a treasure there is no need of occupying, robbing or appropriating.”
In our post-post-post modern world, we might well wonder now and then where the treasures of the past have disappeared. Some people ask themselves if the wooden planks of Noah’s Ark are indeed lying out there somewhere on top of Mount Ararat in Armenia, and if the looted treasures of the Ark of the Covenant may really be found in one of the Vatican basement storerooms or whether they have been scattered to the winds.
The twentieth century supplied additional sources of such speculation: what happened to property confiscated from victims of the Nazis? Have treasures appropriated by Communist regimes been returned to their owners or have they become part of the public domain? When do lands belong to occupiers, and when, if ever, are they returned to the occupied? History doesn’t answer all these questions thoroughly, and sometimes a visit to a museum or a church raises them anew. European museums are filled to the brim with material taken from other places during the era of colonialism; houses of prayer are lined in gold and silver that once belonged to people whose descendents hardly know what gold and silver are.
Poetry is a treasure there is no need of occupying, robbing or appropriating. Well-chosen words enrich us, broaden our horizons, and cause pleasure to those exposed to them in print or when read aloud. An awful lot of words have been written on the power of poetry to predict historic events. Meir Wieseltier’s poem on the Egyptian obelisk’s journey west was written in the 1960s, long before the warm-up in relations between Germany and France that has taken place recently: both of them were united against the war in Iraq and they are now enjoying a honeymoon which makes Wieseltier’s ironic description of the past seem all the funnier. Laughter and tears mix in the poem, which is filled with ironic humor, and which makes a calculated use of prejudice; it exaggerates, through the varied array of humanity it spreads before us, the snigger in our selfishness and nearsightedness. The plundering west and the plundered east, the north that robs and the south that is robbed, are clichés of longstanding.
But most of the time these clichés are based on historical facts and even on recent events. The exploitation of historical and archaeological sites is not a thing of the past: images of the defaced statues of Buddha in Afghanistan, and the looted National Museum of Baghdad are still fresh in our minds. Reading Wieseltier’s poem, we may laugh at the figures of ridicule or feel regret over their fate or identify with those forced to suffer. But the poem is just a break between scenes in life, whereas life itself may be a battlefield or an opportunity to do good. After the laughter and the tears one must return to reality, not always so poetic, yet which enables us to act, to create, to write – to build a bridge: between us and others, between east and west, south to north.